Stylish Steps!


Steps not only take you up and down a slope, or into your house, but can be a strong design element as well. Choose the design and materials carefully because this structural element can have a strong impact on the appearance of your property. Do you use the same materials as in the house or a contrasting one? Should they be curved or straight?

Bluestone and brick steps to front door

These steps are a perfect compliment to the house. The gray Pennsylvania bluestone tread and white brick risers match the white house with the gray roof. The simple black powder coated aluminum hand rail gently curves to make an elegant front entrance. Notice how the black railing matches the black front door. This coordination of colors and materials is striking!



As a landscape designer, I design steps that are attached to the house or free standing in the landscape (detached). There are code requirements for each type, but they are different. For example, in Richmond, VA detached ones do not require a hand rail where attached ones always do. Also, each municipality in my area has a different hand rail requirement for attached steps, so check with your local building inspector. For example, in the Richmond, VA area, one adjoining county requires a railing when you have two risers another will let you have three.


A step is made up of two parts. The flat level surface is the tread. The vertical surface is the riser. To make up a comfortable transition from point to point the relationship between these two is important. There is a simple formula for calculating this proportion. Multiply the riser height twice, add the depth of the tread to make a total of 26. A common step width and height relationship is a 12 inch tread with a 7 inch riser (2x7=14+12=26). A wide tread is nice to have off a back porch, so friends have a nice place to sit. As you now know, a 14 inch tread should not have a 7 inch riser, but needs only a 6 inch one (2x6=12+14=26). Keep this rule in mind to have smooth transitions between the levels and as a good safety precaution

I work with architects and builders that prefer I specify the number of steps that go up to the front door because it is an integral part of the outside appearance of the house. Many times clients want the entrance to the front door fairly low to the ground. This request can be met, if figured out during the design phase. In most cases, the land can be cut or filled to adjust the elevations, so the approach to the front door does not look odd. The topography of the land and how it is manipulated can make or break the opportunity to have that incredible entrance to your house.

Stone and Limestone Steps

These stone risers and limestone treads are another great example of the materials complimenting the house. The same stone that is used in the foundation and porch walls is used in the risers. The limestone treads match the front porch and walk. The color of the stone works well with the painted brick and the limestone matches the trim color.



The small rise that takes you into the house from the stoop is called the threshold step. Make the height 4 inches for a natural entrance into the house. Having the door elevated helps to keep rain water from creeping under it. If the height of this step is lower, it can be a step that catches your toe and makes you trip.

Steps with White Railing

The railing selection (simple or bold) influences the appearance. Which one is appropriate for your house is a personal choice. Keep in mind the architecture. You do not want to fight it, but accent and blend with it. Here the white railing matches the white trim of the house and updates and gives a more finishing touch to the salt treated steps. Notice the closed riser that is much more attractive than an open one.

Steps with storage underneath

The side view of the above shown structure shows how the space under them was utilized. Notice the door that accesses the open area that is now valuable storage for a small back yard. Also, notice how the ends of the treads and risers are trimmed, so you do not see the rough edge of the salt treated lumber. This is a little detail that makes a huge difference in the appearance of your landscape project.

Masonry or concrete steps that are detached from the house must be built on a strong foundation. As well as the appropriate structural foundation being used, be sure that newly graded soil is compacted and stable enough to support this heavy structure. I like the structural foundation to be installed on the original grade, not on fill when at all possible. Fill can be compacted just be sure it is done correctly and can support this added weight.

Brick Steps Descending a Brick Retaining Wall

Adding a landing is an attractive design. It keeps the stair case from protruding out too far. The choice to use brick instead of salt treated lumber here is a wise one. It is an appropriate entrance to the back yard from a very elegant and finished front yard.

Stone Steps in Retaining Wall

These stone steps are part of the adjoining retaining wall. The stone looks perfect in this natural setting. Since they are detached from the house, they are not required to have a hand rail.

You may have a steep slope that needs a regular way to cross it. If you want to keep cost down, you may use 6”x 6”salt treated lumber or something comparable securely installed in the ground as a riser. You can level out the ground behind it to make a safe place to transition the grade change. If something more secure is needed, a stair case can be built over the slope to carry you to your destination.


Beach Steps down a Steep Slope

This steep slope separates this homeowner from the wonderful beach below. A sturdy structure that supports people using it often was necessary. To best accomodate this issue, they are built over the slope with support posts securely in the ground with a concrete footing for stability. The posts extend a minimum of 6 feet in the ground to assure that they are on solid ground. Beach areas have sandy soil, we had to get down to the subsoil which is dense clay and more capable of supporting the weight.

Decks are still popular and by design they are at the level of the house and need a way to get down to the ground. Use your imagination to make this approach an interesting design element. They can add an extra flair to the project as seen in this photograph below.

Deck Steps as a Design Element

Steps are a necessity in many situations, but they do not have to be boring. They can blend with the style of the overall garden or become a primary focal point. The front entrance has more demanding design concerns and needs to be more finished than ones found in back yards or beaches. Build steps that give your project style and are safe and comfortable to use.




Do you have a landscape design issue that is baffling you? Please ask the expert for insight into your problem. I will try my best to help you with any issue or concern. I hope to be hearing from you.




Please contact me to inquire about my landscape design and consulting services:

Nancy Dransfield
Landesign of Virginia, Inc.
P.O. Box 15582
Richmond, VA 23227
Office: 804-261-6773
Fax: 804-264-7253
E-mail: n.dransfield@verizon.net


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